When I was growing up, one of my best friends was a kid named John Carey, who, being an only child with relatively well-off parents, had a brand new Sega Genesis game to show off every few weeks or so. I was lucky enough to live a block from him, so much of my childhood was spent sprawled out on his colorful truck-themed carpet, the other neighborhood kids and I taking turns mashing buttons and complaining as John consistently whupped our asses in Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3. I played a lot of Sega Genesis in those days and have many fond memories involving those giant black boomerangs we called controllers. But perhaps the most formative of these experiences was the day John rented Gunstar Heroes.
If you’ve never played it, Treasure’s Gunstar Heroes is arguably the pinnacle of Genesis gaming, a run-and-gun shooter that pushed the limits of Sega’s “blast processing” further than any game before it. As a bunch of ill-adjusted twelve-year-olds, we had trouble making it through an entire stage without throwing our teammates into a pit. But in those moments when we were able to stop bickering over power-ups and work together as a cohesive fighting force, John and I both recognized that this was a very singular game. It wasn’t just the frantic action, the colorful graphics, or even the thrilling weapon combinations that made it special. It was the weight of the game, something difficult to describe in simple terms. Everything had weight–shots slammed into enemies like boxing gloves against a heavy bag and slide kicks connected with the force of a fighter jet. You could actually feel the impact of each attack, and in a time long before rumble-paks or force-feedback controllers, a sensation like that should have been impossible.
Tim Rogers, Kotaku columnist and a man whose writing I consider the closest thing the game industry has to the explicit word of god, refers to this concept of weight as “Sticky Friction,” acknowledging Treasure as noteworthy for their continual use of this often ignored design. He cites a specific example from Gunstar Heroes: the feeling of snagging a bomb out of mid-air before preparing to hurl it back at the enemy–
“It feels for a second like you’ve just stuck a chopstick into a jar of peanut butter, and are about to send the jar whistling along a countertop with a flick of your wrist.”
It’s an apt description of the phenomenon, the split-second recognition that an action of consequence is about to take place. The presence of this screaming, destructive fury hanging there in between moments, the tension so thick it seems like time itself would stand still. Until suddenly it’s too much, and the weight of this power explodes outwards with all the exuberance of a dying star, obliterating any enemy unlucky enough to be on the receiving end.
And it’s with this long-winded explanation that I declare Bangai-O HD: Missile Fury to be the stickiest goddamn game I’ve played in a long time. And that is not a compliment to be taken lightly.
Bangai-O is a fairly obscure series, first introduced to us round-eyed Americans by way of the Dreamcast–a console whose non-existent market share ensured that its many awesome exclusives would go undetected by the gaming public at large (though game snobs still award high praise to the orange swirl). Thankfully, Xbox Live Arcade has proven a kind benefactor to many odd releases, and after playing through this HD iteration, I can only hope the series will finally receive some long-deserved attention. Bangai-O, the titular robot of the game, must fight its way through legions of enemy robots, giant alien bugs, and other futuristic bad-guy tropes. Despite this simplistic “Giant Robot vs. Everyone Else” theme, the game is hardly lacking in complexity.
The game is controlled with a twin-stick control scheme, which will be familiar to anyone who has played similar arcade titles, such as Smash TV or Geometry Wars. The left thumb-stick controls Bangai-O’s movement, while the right fires its current weapon in the selected direction. As intuitive as this control setup may be, it’s the rest of your complicated control options that creates the headache for new players. Early on I found myself accidentally activating special attacks or auto-fire while simply trying to switch my weapon. The learning curve on Bangai-O is steep, with a baffling variety of control options and an in-game manual more than fifty pages long. Thankfully, you can pick up most of the basics after an hour or so, and the game does its best to introduce new game elements at a reasonable pace.
Giant robots aren’t exactly known for their diplomacy, but the amount of power packed into this little mechanical wonder defies common sense. As you proceed through the game, you’ll have access to everything from homing missiles to devastating napalm bombs, causing an endless supply of projectiles to spill onto the screen with the simple flick of a thumb. Bangai-O also commands two supporting attacks by way of the right trigger. If pressed while stationary, it freezes any enemies close to Bangai-O, a move that’s hard to perform reliably but is a required maneuver for taking out certain enemy types. If used while moving, it activates Bangai-O’s dash attack, which is perhaps your greatest asset on these hectic battlegrounds. It allows the little robot to slip through the barrage of fire unscathed, stunning any enemies in its way.
However, the most important mechanic in the game, as well as the most visually stunning, is the counter-attack. With the left trigger button held down, Bangai-O builds up a screen-filling burst attack that can either be launched out in every direction or specifically targeted by pointing the right thumb-stick. The key here is that the number of projectiles launched depends on the number of enemy bullets currently contained within the Bangai-O’s outer boundary. When you release the counter attack trigger, all bullets contained within this boundary are converted into firepower, with up to 1,000 individual projectiles exploding out of the tiny robot. Depending on your current power levels, this attack can be multiplied up to four times the intensity, making giant frickin’ missiles pour out onto the screen–sometimes in such massive force that the game literally has to slow down to properly render the ridiculous number of elements on the screen. It’s often a matter of knowing when to release the trigger; multiple times I tried to build up to a full 1,000 count counter-attack, only to be ripped apart by enemy fire. When you do properly execute a giant counter attack, it’s a visual wonder, especially amplified by high-definition visuals. Pinpoint beams of light fire in every direction, and enemies explode all around you. The action clearly tests the limits of what the 360 can process, and many times my string of successive counter-attacks would force the game into slow-motion. But even moving at a fraction of the speed, the exploding light show is no less impressive.
Bangai-O’s key theme is one of scale, throwing the titular robot into seemingly impossible scenarios against opposing forces often thousands strong. It’s visually amazing to see this tiny avatar blasting through the overwhelming opposition, easily surmounting extreme odds and leaving behind an incredible wake of devastation. Many games have offered similarly ridiculous “army of one” style shenanigans, expecting gamers to believe that the Three Kingdoms period was populated with various Chinese warriors capable of single-handedly murdering thousands of their countrymen while racking up impressive combo bonuses (Dynasty Warriors still sucks, by the way). However, Bangai-O truly shines in its willingness to make the main character less than invincible. You’ll quickly learn that as powerful as Bangai-O is, the most minor of errors leaves players vulnerable to swift retribution, and many of the larger foes are able to bring the tiny bot down in a single hit. Finding the balance between attacking head-on and fleeing from danger is a constant struggle, but knowing that you aren’t invincible makes each stage completion that much more satisfying.
After a few stages, it becomes clear that Bangai-O is perhaps less a shooter and more a puzzle game. Each level brings a unique variation to the game’s frantic action, sometimes turning off specific abilities, imposing a strict time limit, or daring the player to smash his way through waves of giant robots with only the dash attack and a hundred or so soccer balls. This is where the game truly succeeds, its challenges differentiating Bangai-O from other mindless shooters. With so many different elements for the designers to choose from, it’s no surprise how many twists they managed to throw your way. And just in case the hundred or so levels aren’t enough for you, an accomplished level editor is available for the truly hardcore.
As truly awesome as the action is, it’s worth noting that Treasure may have skimped on some elements. Especially noticeable is the complete absence of any storyline, and though it’s obviously a challenge to design a wholesome narrative that accounts for everything from space ninjas to giant fruit pickups, it would have been nice for them to at least make an honest attempt. The storyline (or lack thereof) is of little concern when you’re busy filling the screen with an onslaught of missiles and lasers, but it’s somewhat unnerving to rampage your way through the stages with a murderous fury and have no idea what your motivations are for doing so. Battling a screen-full of giant ant monsters is one thing, but ripping through a cluster of seemingly innocuous skyscrapers while its occupants cry out in anguish is a moral dilemma I’d rather not face in my XBLA titles. I started to feel like Jun Ushiro in the final story arc of Japanese manga Bokurano, which is perhaps the most obscure reference I’ve ever tried to sneak past an editor. [Editor: At least he’s honest.]
Besides the absent storyline, the other major problem is that the game can be frustratingly vague about what it expects you to do at each stage. Your guide to the game is the poorly drawn doctor character who greets you before each level, often with advice no more complex than “get the item that appears” or “watch out for ninjas.” I attempted some stages at least a few dozen times before I had a firm grasp on my mission, so a bit more exposition would have been welcome.
Even accounting for these minor flaws, Bangai-O HD is a goddamn thrill–a mind-blowing exhibition of light and sound unlike any other. The game can be tough to figure out at first, but the first time you launch that full 1000x counter-attacks, everything comes together. The screen tenses up, zeroing in on the little robot in the center of the fray, who’s surrounded on all sides by enemy fire. There’s a burst of friction so sticky that it feels like your heart stopped beating in your chest. And then, upon the sound of the universe collapsing, it happens. The wave of catastrophic devastation shoots out in all directions, the glorious light show tearing through everything in sight.
And it’s beautiful.